Saturday 29 February 2020

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep - Theatre Review

What: Dragon Ladies Don't Weep
When: 28 February 2020
Where: Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Directed by: Tamara Saulwick
Composed by: Erik Griswold
Performed by: Margaret Leng Tan
Videography by: Nick Roux
Costumes by: Yuan Zhiying
Lighting by: Andy Lim
Margaret Leng Tan - photo by Pia Johnson

Asia TOPA has created a glorious week for me and it was topped of with the amazing Margaret Leng Tan performing her story at the Playhouse in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep. Partnering with Chambermade, Tan and her long time music collaborator, Erik Griswold, took us through a personal journey of music, mental health, and magic.

A significant proportion of the show was dedicated to Tan's relationship with John Cage and his compositions but make no mistake, Tan is significant in her own right both in the incredible artistry of her performance skills but also for such notable ground breaking moments as being the first woman to ever receive a doctorate from the internationally famous Julliard School. As significant as Cage was in Tan's musical development and explorations, she was also one of the artists who helped him to continue to compose and innovate past his ability to play and is now considered one of the foremost authorities on Cage in performance.

The story of Dragon Ladies Don't Weep begins when Tan is just a little girl with a counting problem. Discovering that music and counting are natural partners was a catalytic moment for Tan. Lucky for her, she made this discovery in a time when minimalist music was crescendoing in popular culture (think Nyman, Glass, etc) and so her version of OCD really did find a home which would be advantageous rather than self sabotaging.

For those who don't know, Minimalism in music is about using only the smalles number of phrases or notes and using them in a repetitive pattern, usually with slowly ascending chords. Minimalist music points to itself rather than Romanticism - which I have been talking about a lot lately - which tells a story. There is more to it than that, but I am not here to give a music lesson (and am not qualified to do so). It is the love of Minimalism music which is one of the threads which binds Leng's musical connection composer Erik Griswold.

What does Minimalism have to do with Cage I hear you ask? Nothing. But this is another point of synergy between Tan and Griswold. Cage is known for being the originator of making non traditional instruments worthy of the great concert halls of the world. Cage invented the prepared piano (the act of placing objects in a piano to change the sound/tuning of the strings). He wrote Suite For Toy Piano which was a seminal work which helped define the rest of Tan's musical life. He played the piano like a percussion instrument and allowed musicians to explore it in ways nobody ever had before. You haven't seen anything until you see Tan bow the strings like dental floss!

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not so much Tan's chronological life journey. It is more an ode to her development as an artist and the man who helped her find freedom to explore the things which excite her. Tan refers to herself as a "child of cage" and she can be seen playing just about anything and turning that sound into great art. In the show a toddler's toy phone sits beside her mobile phone and her toy piano and somehow Griswold has composed a funny and exhillerating concerto which is played with glorious artistry by a musician who is still well inside her prime despite being what we euphemistically call  a senior citizen.

The idea of a prepared piano is to make the instrument sound like a full orchestra and with some brilliant composition, playing, and four ordinary bolts Griswold and Tan manage to make her grand piano develop a beautiful Chinese flavour which is enchanting in the piece 'Dragon Lady Calling' and creates a sonic gestalt throughout the entire show.

Dragon Ladies Don't Weep is not a recital though, and what brings it into theatrical performance is Tan's wit and honesty as she tells us stories of success, but also failure. She quotes Beckett early on  with "Fail again. Fail better." and talks about her lack of awareness, and how accidents are as much a part of the fabric of her life as is intention. This itself mirrors Cage's interest in chance-control in music.

The visual interpretation of Tan's world is realised by some exquisite video imagery by Nick Roux. Refusing to take a literal approach, he too follows the precepts of minimalism to augment Tan's memory and thought processes with geometry and slow motion and careful architectural texturing. I get goose pimples when all the artists on a team are working in the same mode and this is exactly what is happening in Dragon Ladies Don't Weep, including gentle and restrained lighting (Lim) and masterfully non-intrusive direction (Saulwick).

Sadly, Dragon Ladies Don't Weep was only on in Melbourne for one night so if you weren't there yesterday you have missed it. The good news is there are 3 performances coming up at the Opera House so you can head up to Sydney in March to see it before it heads to Singapore.

5 Stars

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